Mehserle trial goes to Los Angeles, judge rules
on November 20, 2009
An Alameda County judge ordered Thursday that the murder trial of Johannes Mehserle be moved to Los Angeles County, citing the county’s experience with high profile cases in the past as a motivating factor in his decision.
Mehserle, the ex-BART police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station on January 1, was originally set to be tried at the Rene C. Davison Courthouse in downtown Oakland this month. But on October 16, Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson granted a change of venue for the trial, ruling that the violent protest and media attention the case has brought to Alameda County would preclude the possibility of a fair trial.
Yesterday’s decision came after potential destinations for the case had been narrowed to two: Los Angeles and San Diego. They were the only two counties judged to have the capacity to host the proceedings that approximated the population demographics of Alameda County.
According to 2008 census data, Los Angeles has a 9.4 percent African American population, compared with Alameda’s 13.5 percent. San Diego, meanwhile, is only 5.5 percent black.
Jacobson said the demographic statistics were “kind of a wash,” and that the differences “don’t rise to the level of what would affect due process rights.” He noted that after looking at more detailed data of the central part of San Diego where a jury would be pulled from, the African American population rose to 7.5 percent.
Whatever the number, Jacobson said that Los Angeles and San Diego are “two of the most diverse counties in the state,” and that while demographics had to be considered “at some level,” they would not make or break his decision between the two counties.
Of the major arguments offered by Michael Rains, Mehserle’s defense attorney, and David Stein, the Deputy District Attorney prosecuting the case, two received the most consideration in court. Rains argued that moving the trial to Los Angeles would cause unnecessary and unjust delays, while Stein argued that San Diego lacked the facilities and security to accommodate the trial.
Los Angeles is experienced at handling high profile, controversial cases, Stein said, and has a high level of security set up for cases with those needs. Stein argued Thursday that such facilities were “not just preferable, but necessary” for the trial, and that Los Angeles’ facilities would come “with no additional costs to Alameda County.”
San Diego, on the other hand, would have to build up security and add additional bailiffs to accommodate the trial, which has attracted protest and controversy at every stage of the proceedings. Those security upgrades, he said, would be charged to Alameda County taxpayers.
Rains argued that moving the trial to Los Angeles would mean further delays, representing an “enormous” hardship for his client. He said the delay would take away Mehserle’s right to a speedy trial and violate his “need to move forward” past the incident.
“He deserves that much, to get this behind him,” Rains said.
Jacobson estimated that it will take at least six months before a Los Angeles court for the trial becomes available, and perhaps up to a year. San Diego would have been able to open a courtroom for the trial in two or three months.
On Thursday, Jacobson ultimately decided that the wait was worth it.
“The judge concluded it would be more likely than not to get a fair jury in Los Angeles than in San Diego,” said John Burris, the attorney representing Grant’s family in a separate, civil suit against Mehserle. “San Diego has a long history of being tolerant of police misconduct. It’s better to wait and get a jury pool that you want.”
For the Grant family, Thursday’s decision came as a relief after their disappointment with October’s change of venue decision.
“I really wanted to jump for joy when I heard the judge say Los Angeles County,” said Cephus Johnson, Oscar Grant’s uncle. “Our concern is justice… and there’s better odds of getting justice in Los Angeles than San Diego.”
It was a sentiment echoed in the courtroom by prosecutor Stein, who argued that a decision made by a diverse Los Angeles jury would be perceived by Oakland residents as a more legitimate outcome. Court delays, he said, should not be a deciding factor in moving the trial.
“If we have to wait six months or a year, that’s what I’d rather do,” Stein said. “Justice is not a race.”
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.
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